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“It’s Groundhog Day!”

Another Groundhog Day has come and gone. Normally in Wisconsin, February finds us pining for spring. In a more typical year, we would gladly welcome the prospect of only six more weeks of winter! This year, we’re wondering if the winter will ever come – even though most of us aren’t complaining.

When it comes to our human struggle for growth and maturity, the new life of spring can seem impossibly distant. We can feel stuck in repetitive patterns, and nothing seems to make a lasting difference.

Have you ever found yourself like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, repeating the same story, over and over again? I certainly have.

In those seasons, it’s so easy to feel trapped in powerlessness and shame, and to hear the dark whisperings of discouragement. It’s also easy to slip into fixing – the seeking or giving of advice – rather than curiosity and kindness. If changing things were really so easy, most of us would have done it already!

There are three sayings that come to mind here:

  1. If it seems hysterical, it’s probably historical.
  2. We repeat what we don’t repair.
  3. That which does not get transformed gets transmitted.

I don’t know who first said any of them. I just know that they’re true. Repetitive behaviors in the present moment are a marvelous invitation to be curious about our story. In some cases, they may rightly be called “sins,” insofar as they cause harm to others or self. Even so, it is far more helpful to view them as symptoms and be curious about what’s really happening.

Let’s consider a few examples of how present-day problems can be re-enactments of past trauma.

Remember the Adrian Peterson scandal in 2014? He was charged with child abuse for using a switch on his 4-year-old son. He left cuts and bruises all over that little boy’s body. Understandable moral outrage quickly shifted into a self-righteous contempt. Many could only see Peterson as a monster, and not a wounded child of God who was wounding his children. How much would you bet that he was re-creating a situation that was familiar to him as a child? Not only that, how much would you bet that (going back a few generations) his ancestors, captured and sold as slaves, had their bodies bruised and cut by the whips of their white-bodied tormentors? Are we, as a collective society, willing to acknowledge that the harm and atrocities of past generations are far from healed? Or is that someone else’s problem that I don’t want to deal with? If it seems hysterical, it’s probably historical. We repeat what we don’t repair. That which does not get transformed gets transmitted.

Another example: the tendency of many to “Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em” in their romantic relationships. Those who behave this way may not say it explicitly, but they instinctively prefer to be the ones to do the rejecting or abandoning of others rather than have it happen to them. For some, the ritual may be one-night-stands, re-creating a scene of humiliation or stinging abandonment. For others, it’s a repeated pattern of passion-charged relationships that actually start to feel intimate and real – which elicits panic and an abrupt disappearing act. They can’t risk the possibility of losing a genuinely close relationship – because they have not yet faced their past heartache.

I have worked closely with several dozen survivors of sexual abuse. I’ve met many hundreds. You have, too, even if you don’t realize it. Sexual abuse is something we prefer not to think about or talk about. In my case, these conversations typically began under another pretext. Maybe they were confessing the same sin for the 500th time, dealing with intense anxiety or depression, feeling suicidal, or engaging in self-harm. Maybe they kept finding themselves getting romantically involved with an abusive partner. Maybe they were one of many churchgoers today who were resentful that I wouldn’t let them turn me into a political activist or join forces with them in fixing their spouse or children – even when those “children” are older than I am.

Sometimes, abuse survivors become perpetrators who re-enact their trauma by harming others in a very similar way. They return to the scene of the crime, only this time they are the one in control, and not the powerless victim.

Much more commonly, survivors of abuse transmit harm to their children and others by a vow never to be that powerless again (even though we are never actually in control). They might over-protect their children or rigidly push them into roles, not delighting in them for who they really are. They might focus excessively on keeping up a “clean” family image, which leaves their children feeling unbearable pressure. In rigid families that focus on performance or image, there is no room for the children to make mistakes. They can only belong and be loved if they look the part. Still other abuse survivors might succumb to addictions that make them emotionally unavailable to their children, who in turn feel abandoned or rejected. Even though their parents’ struggles have nothing to do with them, those children are likely to feel an intense conviction that they must be inherently flawed and unlovable. That which does not get transformed gets transmitted.

In every case, I find that survivors of abuse become their own abusers. We harm ourselves in repetitive ways – coming into agreement with the condemnation against us, with the shaming voice of the evil one (the very name “Satan” means “accuser”).

I remember hearing a talk by Wendell Moss in which he offered the image of a judge’s gavel. So often, our repeated behaviors or relational struggles are ways that we take hold of the gavel and come into agreement with the verdict against us. As we swing the gavel (yet again) to declare ourselves bad or unlovable, Jesus reaches in with his pierced and bloody hand and takes the gavel away. As with the woman caught in adultery, he invites our gaze into his eyes and says, “I don’t condemn you.” As the apostle Paul teaches, “There is no condemnation now for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

Each one of us is in the middle of a story. We have come from somewhere – from a particular context, and from more multi-generational heartache than we ever want to admit. Most of us will try 10,000 behavioral solutions before we are willing to get curious about where we have come from and the incredible heartache that still shows up in our present-day reactions.

As a result, we continue pulling other humans onto our stage, unwittingly inviting them to be supporting actors as we re-enact again and again our most painful stories. We may not be consciously remembering the heartache, but our body and nervous system and innermost self are screaming out (like a little child) for someone to pay attention and help us make sense of it all. Sometimes others, sometimes we ourselves shame that distressed child, warning him to shut up and shape up.

Sadly, this especially happens in the Church. Far too often, we who are ordained or the members of our communities keep on treating the symptoms without acknowledging that this person has a story. When the weak and the wounded turn to us, we fixate on the immediate “sin” they are struggling with. We give them advice or platitudes. We stay far away from their shame, as though it will contaminate us. We don’t go into the dark and painful places and just be present with the loving gaze of Jesus.

We can’t take others places we have been unwilling to go yourselves. Until we become brave shepherds ourselves, until we experience transformation in the heartache of our own stories, we will not tend well to the stories of others.

What are some of your “Groundhog Day” stories that keep repeating themselves?

Would you be willing to set down the shame or the pressure to fix your behaviors right now, and be curious about your deeper heartache? If it’s hysterical, it just might be historical. Your repeated patterns may be an invitation into the deeper work of repairing. The last three or four generations of your ancestors (as fallen humans) have transmitted plenty of heartache that is yet-to-be faced and transformed in your own story. Are you willing to look more truthfully, and to break that cycle? Are you willing to explore where you have come from, what is really happening in your current stuckness, and how God is inviting a different ending? The choice is yours.

Categories: Abandonment Abuse Affective Maturity Anger Apprenticeship / Mentoring Attachment Theory Chastity Developmental Trauma Facing Heartache in Our Story Grief Neglect Neuroscience and Trauma Research Polyvagal Theory Sexual Harm

Fr. Derek Sakowski

1 reply

  1. Excellent reading thank you for
    the upcoming talks at StOlaf
    pertaining to the closure of hospitals
    on how to cope with our dismissal
    and adjusting to it as workers &
    Volunteers please post in church
    Bulletins when and time many of
    us look forward to your talks & seeing you again Blessings Kathy

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